Recent Egyptian pronouncements concerning Israel and the peace process have had a mixed reception in the Arab world. President Hosni Mubarak's counsels against warlike declarations, and his derisive comments on those fellow-Arabs who call for an all-out Arab attack on Israel as punishment for the way it in which it was reacting to "Al-Aqsa intifada," have had a cool-to-hostile reception not only among the Palestinians but also in some more moderate Arab quarters. In some of these, indeed, the very question was raised as to where Mubarak stands and, more important, of how Egyptians as a collectivity view themselves and their place in the Arab-Muslim world. Although such questions have been asked quietly, and often only by implication and in roundabout ways, they were not ignored, and, equally, soft-voiced responses were not lacking.
Egypt's cultural orientation, or identity, a subject which in the 1930s and 1940s gave rise to fierce controversies and wide differences of opinion, has in recent decades all but ceased to be the cause of such controversies. Time was when leaders of opinion and intellectual pathfinders like Taha Hussein, Salama Mousa, Muhammad Hussein Haykal and Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, found themselves troubled by the question as to where, precisely, Egypt belongs culturally: Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, or the Arab world. Since the 1950s, however, there has been something very near a consensus that Egypt belongs to the Arab world and is, as Gamal Abdel Nasser told the Egyptian National Assembly upon his re-election as president in January 1965, "an integral part of the Arab nation."(1)
What to Nasser seemed obvious, however, had not always gone unchallenged by other Egyptians. As far back as the early 1960s, as the dust was settling on the ruins of the Egypt-Syria merger, some voices began to be heard in Cairo suggesting that the whole idea of pan-Arab unity lacked a solid foundation both in history and in actual reality. One of these was Taha Hussein, who in a newspaper article related how he first encountered the idea of pan-Arab unity.
It was from the Syrians, he wrote, that he heard "talk about Arab unity" many years before -- and "I never heard it for the first, the second and the third time except from the Syrians." Arab unity was the Syrians' dream when their land, their lives and their interests were in the hands of the French -- and it may have been their dream before that, too, when Syria suffered under the despotic rule of the Ottoman Turks. Syrians hated to hear an Arab speaking of the Syrian "nation" (umma); they always hastened to correct you, arguing that there was no such thing as a Syrian nation, an Iraqi nation or an Egyptian nation: there is only one nation, and that is the Arab nation. They conceded, however, that there was a Syrian "people" (sha'b), an Iraqi people, and an Egyptian people -- but they added that these peoples will inevitably be united as they used to be united in the past and merge into an Arab nation as it used to be throughout its history.
"I remember," Taha Hussein added, "that I used to argue with them at length on this union; I used to ask them where would the capital of such a union be -- in Medina, as in the days of the first caliphs? In Damascus, as in the time of the Umayyads? Or in Baghdad, as in the days of the Abbasids? ... Eventually they accused me, in their newspapers, first of Pharaonism, later of shu'ubiyya (non-Arab orientation). Then they proceeded to accuse all or most of Egypt's writers of Pharaonism, which they used to hate exceedingly and condemn root and branch."(2)
Such "non-Arab" sentiments, expressed by Taha Hussein and other Egyptian thinkers, following Syria's secession from the United Arab Republic in the early 1960s, were soon to be reciprocated by certain quarters in Damascus -- with the result that the Nasser regime now had to defend its belief in Egypt's Arabness on two fronts. "We have no choice," declared Nasser in an address he gave at a mass rally on 22 February 1962. "We are Arabs, and Egypt will remain Arab because this is nature itself...." Nasser was replying to unidentified persons who were making the suggestion, he said, that Egypt ought to let the Arabs alone and start concentrating on its own affairs. Earlier, referring to Syrian charges that the Egyptians were confirmed "Pharaonists" rather than Arabs, Nasser had declared that all this talk of Egypt's fir'awniyya was unfounded, since it started "just because Taha Hussein, years ago, expressed the opinion that the Egyptians were Pharaonists."
The point, of course, is that Egypt has had too many and too prolonged contacts with cultures other than the Muslim-Arab one for it to be readily identified as Arab and for its culture to be one of a piece. "Where do we stand in the World?" asked Fat'hi Ghanim, a young Egyptian writer and novelist, not long after the dismantling of the Egypt-Syria merger. "What is our attitude to the policies and the ideological, cultural and religious trends surrounding us? ... The history of our literature in the past twenty-five years is a record of the attempt to answer these questions." But while in the literary field it was agreed that "we have to create a literature of our own uninfluenced by anyone," the question was harder to answer on the socio-cultural level. In fact, the writer says, the question of why Egypt should not be a part of Europe, and Egyptian society a part of European society, never got a satisfactory answer.(3)
It was this same question that Taha Hussein had tried to answer in his well-known book, The Future of Culture in Egypt (Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr), first published in 1938. In the first part of the book, he gives his assessment of the nature of Egyptian culture. History, he says, will have to be our guide. From olden times there have been two civilizations on this earth, whose very encounter with each other was a hostile clash -- i.e., that of Europe and that of the East. The question is: is the Egyptian mind Eastern or Western in terms of its concept-formation or imagination, perception, understanding and judgment? There is but one test: is it easier for the Egyptian mind to understand a Chinese or a Frenchman than an Englishman?
The answer is obvious, Taha Hussein submits. There is no evidence of intellectual, political or economic ties between Egypt and the East (i.e., the Far East) in antiquity. Close ties existed solely with the Near East -- Palestine, Syria, Iraq. On the other hand, there is no need to insist on the well-known connections between Egypt and the Aegean, and between Egypt and the Greeks, from the very beginning of their civilization down to Alexander. In fact, Egypt resisted the Persian invader from the East with the help of the Greek volunteers and the Greek cities, until it was freed by Alexander.
Thus, Taha Hussein continues, the Egyptian mind's real ties were all with the Near East and the Greeks, and, insofar as it was affected by outside influences, these influences were Mediterranean. The Mediterranean civilizations interacted, with Egypt holding the precedence of age; but never did the Egyptian mind enter into contact with India, China, and Japan. What he cannot understand, Taha Hussein writes, is that, despite all these well-known facts, the Egyptians still consider themselves Easterners.
Had the ready acceptance of Islam, then, made the Egyptians an Eastern nation? According to Taha Hussein, spiritual unity and political unity do not necessarily go together. The Muslims always realized that political organization and faith were two matters of different order; they conceived of government as dedicated primarily if not exclusively to public affairs. Europe, too, is organized along the same lines, both Islam and Christianity being influenced by Greek philosophy.
In the modern age, Taha Hussein asserts, Egypt has taken Europe as a model in all aspects of material life. Egypt's mind, too, is purely European. To support his thesis that Egypt should aim for out-and-out Westernization, he finally turns to the "tales" told about the "spirituality" of the East and the "materialism" of the West. Pointing out that European civilization possessed great spiritual content, though there was a great deal of materialism in it, he argues that the Near East had been the cradle of all the divine religions, those adopted by Europeans as well as those followed by Near Easterners. "Can these religions be `spirit' in the East and `matter' in the West?" he asked rhetorically.(4)
Taha Hussein was by no means the only Egyptian of note to express such sentiments. Abdel Rahman `Azzam, the Arab League's first secretary-general, and an Egyptian, has related how, when once he tried to discuss the subject of Arab unity with Sa'ad Zaghlul, this prominent Egyptian nationalist leader interrupted him: "If you add a zero to a zero, and then to another zero, what will you get?" `Azzam himself, when he was later faced with an increasing amount of criticism of the League and its work, and especially of its Secretariat, said: "The secretary-general is only a mirror of the Arab states.... The condition that prevails in it now is nothing but a reflection in this mirror of conditions prevalent in the Arab lands."
In this connection, it is useful to recall a controversy started close to 50 years ago by Fat'hi Radwan, the Egyptian writer, who was national guidance minister at the time. In a lecture published later in the Cairo daily Akhbar al-Yaum (21 March 1953), Radwan raised the question: Who are the Egyptians? "We are indeed Egyptians," he wrote. "But -- are these Egyptians Arab? Are they Arab by race, or are they Arab by politics? Or are they perhaps Arab by culture?"
He went on to ask whether the Egyptians were Muslims, in the sense that they ought "to erect our politics, education and constitution on the teachings of Islam," or Africans in more than a geographical sense, or Mediterraneans, or Europeans. But Radwan refrained from giving any answers and contented himself with inviting the politicians, the educationists, and the social scientists to answer them "without hesitation or delay."
The results were most interesting. The weekly Al-Musawwar, on the initiative of its editor, Fikri Abada, organized a symposium in which the participants were three ministers, former secretary-general of the Arab League `Azzam, an ex-dean of Alexandria University, the deputy-dean of Cairo University, and Abada himself.
The discussion produced no conclusive results, but what was said there was illuminating. `Azzam concluded his dissertation by saying: "We are Egyptians first and foremost, then Arabs, then Muslims." Hussein Kamel Salim, then deputy-dean of Cairo University, declared: "We are Egyptians first and last." Fikri Abada ruled: "We are ancient Egyptians and nothing besides." William Salim Hanna, municipal affairs minister, said: "As we speak Arabic, and as our literature is Arab, we can by no means ignore the influence of that literature on our being, our life, our orientation, our plans, and our everyday reactions ...." `Abbas `Ammar, social affairs minister, dealt with many points but gave no answer at all, while Radwan contented himself with playing the role of moderator. Finally, a former dean of Alexandria University, Mansour Fahmi, complained that he had entered the hall with his head swirling with questions, but after he heard the participants speak his perplexity had grown....(5)
The great debate about Egypt's cultural identity, which raged before and just after Nasser came to power with his call for Arab unity, tended to become gradually less topical and less important as the years passed. In the wake of the conclusion of a separate peace treaty with Israel in 1980, however, the controversy was renewed, though with far less heat. In a symposium organized by Tel Aviv University on the subject of "Self-Views in Historical Perspective in Egypt and Israel," two Egyptian intellectuals spoke on the subject -- Hussein Fawzi and Ahmed M. Gomaa. Gomaa, a scholar and author of The Foundations of the League of Arab States, dealt with "The Egyptian Personality -- Between the Nile, the West, Islam and the Arabs," declaring that it was not his purpose "to indulge in great detail in an academic exposition of Egypt's self-view and the prospect of its historical legacy," and that he would "merely mention a few pertinent points."
Gomaa's first point concerned the impact of the environment on the Egyptian personality. He said:
The Nile has unquestionably been central in the evolution of a homogeneous society and political community, with a central authority based on a well-established bureaucracy. In Egypt, the concept of nationhood was never questioned. Even during the long periods of foreign rule, Egypt retained its specificity of culture and life, absorbing foreign influences without being submerged by them and without losing its identity. This is reflected in several basic traits that can still be distinguished among the ordinary Egyptians, by whom I mean the peasants who form the majority of the population. Foremost among these is inner serenity. The regularity of the Nile inundations, the rarity of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, gave life on the banks of the Nile a placid quality. Even when an exceptional summer flood took its toll of homes and lives, the reaction was one of acceptance. The Nile symbolized a deity, to be accorded veneration and annual offerings in thanks for its bounty. At the same time, it was a personified deity with which people found comfort in identifying themselves.
A second trait associated with the Nile as the overriding force, Gomaa added, was "respect for a central, dominant government." In fact, he said, respect for central authority is endemic to a society dependent for its survival on an irrigation system that requires an effective political authority to maintain and regulate it.
The Nile and the central authority were, in fact, two faces of the same coin. Both were viewed with respect and veneration bordering on worship. Hence, hard labor in building the pyramids or colossal temples was gladly undertaken as a sacred duty to the central authority. This is the imprint of the Pharaonic heritage on the Egyptian self-view, an attitude that has tended to discourage violent political and social upheaval such as we have seen in other societies.
A third trait is enormous patience, underlain by a sure belief in ultimate reward and accompanied by endurance and self-discipline in the face of difficulties. "These are sometimes transcended by recourse to fatalism and religion, at other times by simply laughing off the difficulties. Either response is one of escapism, a tendency not to face unpleasant realities." Two more traits that developed as a result of this lifestyle are "flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances; and superficiality, the tendency not to investigate the depths of unpleasant realities or developments."
The second point taken up by Gomaa was the variety of Egyptian responses to the impact of modernity. "The opening to the West first came with the Napoleonic invasion, and was extended under Muhammad `Ali, the founder of modern Egypt. There followed a scientific and cultural revival." He added:
But contact with the West also bred antagonism and bitterness, which intensified after the occupation by Britain. The response was Islamic fundamentalism, which has acquired growing political and social significance. Another response was the secular trend that had its origin in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, there was a dialogue and a dispute between three basic trends. The first, Westernized, called for a secular civilization. It claimed that Egypt, a Mediterranean country, is a continuation of Europe and must draw on European culture and technology. The second trend was Pharaonism. It called for abandoning or putting less emphasis on both the Islamic heritage and the West, and giving more emphasis to the Pharaonic past. In other words, it gloried in the Egyptian past and an Egyptian nationhood separate and distinct from all foreign influences.
What developed during the 1940s and 1950s was more or less a synthesis of these three trends, Gomaa remarked:
Retaining the Pharaonic past and its heritage as background, the Egyptians drew increasingly from modern, secular, European concepts. Thus, Egypt's legal system, the structure of its government, and its parliamentary system were all based on European models. But in culture, the Arabic-Islamic impact was much stronger. Modern literary Arabic had developed in Egypt, and it was in Egypt that the greater modern Arabic writers had emerged.... In the 1940s, one variant of this synthesis skewed towards Nazism and Fascism. It gave rise to similar, extremely nationalist ideologies that drew upon religion or exploited religion for their own ends. Another development in the 1940s was the rise of militant religious trends -- such as the Muslim Brethren.
The third point that Gomaa was careful to stress was what he termed "the Arab commitment of Egypt." There is no point in trying to minimize this impact, he said:
It is no simple matter for any political system in Egypt ... to contend with the pressures of Arabism in Egypt. We in Egypt are Arabs .... It is not important whether we are "purely" Arab or not "purely" Arab, what is important is whether we view ourselves as Arabs or not Arabs. The self-view is what matters. It is true that, historically, Egyptians cannot be regarded as "purely" Arab. We have a Pharaonic past, and the Copts in Egypt claim to be the direct descendants of that Pharaonic era. The Muslims themselves are of the same descent, and they only partly intermarried with the Arab invaders. What matters now is that after several centuries of Arabization, after Egypt became the seat of the most prominent Arab-Islamic university in the world of Islam, namely al-Azhar, after Egypt housed the most prominent writers in the Arabic language -- Egypt now has an Arab self-view.... This is not only a matter of sentiments or perceptions. It is also a matter of self-interest of the first degree. We now have one and a half million Egyptians working in the Arab countries .... [who] support at least three more million living in Egypt.... In addition there are about one quarter of a million Egyptians married to Arabs all over the Arab world, either Egyptian men having Arab wives or Egyptian women married to Arabs. These facts put extreme pressure on any politician, no matter what stand he takes.(6)
In sharp contrast to Gomaa's conclusions, the late Hussein Fawzi, one of the most prominent members of the older generation of Egyptian intellectuals, stressed Egypt's distinctive personality, asserting that the Egyptian people "succeeded in maintaining its identity despite conquest and occupation." Egypt's contribution to world Civilization has been threefold -- "three histories, and I have lived them all. They are all part of me."
First, the Pharaonic times. Besides being a great civilization in its own right, it also influenced the Greeks. The Greek philosophers came to ancient Egypt, they visited the temples, they talked with the priests. And through its impact on Greek civilization (and on Rome, and on Christianity, both of which also had some contact with it), Ancient Egypt influenced indirectly the development of European civilization. Second, Egypt's Christian period. Little is known about the Church of Egypt in its early days, but it proved that it had its own personality. The Coptic Church is one of the most ancient churches in Christianity; Alexandria is much older than Byzantium. The Copts, that is the Egyptians, never accepted the new-fangled ideas of the Byzantines. Monasticism, in all its forms, was begotten in the Egyptian deserts. The Coptic monks traveled as far as Ireland; the Irish recognize the Coptic origins of many of their laws and establishments. The hermits of Thebayid and other places had a great impact on the Graeco-Roman world. Much evidence of these developments remains to this day. Third, Islam in Egypt. Mention of al-Azhar is sufficient to prove that Egypt contributed to Islam just as it contributed to Christianity.
All these are historical facts, Fawzi added. "Egyptians cannot forget what they were in Pharaonic times, in Christian times, and in Islam. In each of these periods Egypt was an entity." The people succeeded in maintaining its identity despite conquest and occupation.
Throughout the ages, its rhythm of life has always proceeded undisturbed. The Egyptian people has continued to till the soil and to plant, to build and to craft, molding its unique civilization and weaving the long threads of Egyptian history into the fabric of a strong society. Egypt's landscape is resplendent with monuments to this continuity of history, this perseverance. The Egyptian people has built pyramids, temples, churches, and mosques; engineering works, from irrigation basins to dams to the Suez Canal; palaces, monuments, and centers of learning. Together they bear witness to the endurance, the dedication, the unity of the Egyptian people.
This unity is in no small measure an expression of the people's intimate contact with its land. Only by combined effort could they control the waters on which Egypt's civilization depends, the waters of the Nile. Egyptian civilization, the triumph of a people united against the adversity of nature, has been a source of inspiration to the nations with which it came into contact. Many of the achievements of the Egyptian people, particularly in medicine and engineering, in building, architecture, and art, in the organization of government and society, left their mark on world cultural history. No less important was Egyptian concern for the spiritual dimension, beyond temporal life. In all these fields, Egyptian civilization has continually manifested its world significance and uniqueness.(7)
As we have seen elsewhere in this essay, statements of the way Egyptians conceive of their identity and of their image often come in response to accusations leveled at them by fellow-Arabs and having mostly to do with Egypt's "Arabness." One such accusation came in the early 1990s, when the late President Anwar al-Sadat decided to change his country's name from "The United Arab Republic" to "The Arab Republic of Egypt." In response, Rif'at al-Assad, a prominent Syrian Ba'th party functionary who is also the brother of Hafez al-Assad, the late president of Syria, addressed an open letter to Sadat, in which he objected to the change and lamented that, whereas up to Sadat's assumption of the presidency Egypt had preserved its Arab name, things were now taking a different turn owing to the new regime's "particularism and Egyptianization."
One instructive answer to this open letter came from the Egyptian writer and publicist Foumil Labib, who, in an article in the Cairo weekly Al-Musawwar, stressed the following points: (1)Talk about Egypt's change of name marks a return to an old Ba'th party allegation concerning "Pharaoism" (fir'awniyya) -- a charge that had become a "complex" with the late president Nasser, who consequently decided to delete the name "Egypt" and replace it with "Arab." "We," Labib adds, "have now cured ourselves of that complex. We do not disown our Egyptianness, because we don't intend to disown our distant past and its glories, of which we feel quite proud." (2) Nasser had surrendered Egypt's name in pursuance of pan-Arab leadership. Sadat, in contrast, "does not seek leadership; what he wishes to accomplish is to liberate Arab lands and to ensure the well being of the Egyptians." (3) The man who revived Egypt's name also happens to be the man who decided to fight and who attained the victory of October, 1973. "Who knows? Perhaps the name Egypt has some magic for the soldiers fighting at the front." After all, Egypt has a unifying influence on its citizens -- in contrast to the general run of Arab countries, which are torn by narrow communal and denominational conflicts. (4) Egypt has always been open to proposals for Arab unity and Arab unification; but she does not want unity to be a mere slogan. One of the factors that led to the collapse of the tripartite union between Egypt, Syria, and Libya in recent history was "Syria's insistence on gaining certain economic privileges that tended to impoverish her partners." In this connection, Assad is asked to remember a saying of Syrian coinage: "Libya pays, Egypt leads, and Syria gets the trophy."(8)
(1.) Al-Ahram, Cairo, 21 January, 1965.
(2.) Al-Gomhouriyya, Cairo, 7 October 1961. This distinction between "nation" and "people" only shows the amount of confusion, intellectual and political, under which the modern Arab nationalist labors. Pan-Arab nationalists would not allow of the existence of an Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, or Palestinian "nation," but would gladly concede the existence of an Iraqi "people," an Egyptian or Palestinian "people." The contrary -- if anything -- would seem to be the case. The term "people" is vague and general enough to be given to such a cultural linguistic group as "the Arabs" (it has also been given to the Jews with a certain measure of credibility). For all intents and purposes, however, Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, and Palestinians each constitute a "nation" -- or a "nationality" -- if "nation" is to be seen, as it has always been seen in the West, as a function of geography, citizenship, and international procedure.
(3.) Fat'hi Ghanim, "Perplexing Questions," Sabah al-Keir, Cairo, 25 January 1962.
(4.) Taha Hussein, The Future of Culture in Egypt. Cairo, 1938, pp. 62-64. Also available in an English translation by Sidney Glazer (Washington DC: American Council of Learned Societies, 1954).
(5.) First printed in Al-Musawwar, Cairo, 17 April 1953.
(6.) Ahmed M. Gomaa, in Shimon Shamir, ed., Self-Views in Historical Perspective in Egypt and Israel. Tel Aviv, 1980, pp. 33-36.
(7.) Hussein Fawzi, in Shimon Shamir, ibid., pp. 59-61.
(8.) Quoted in The Jerusalem Post, 18 November 1991.
NISSIM REJWAN is the author of nine books, his latest being The Many Faces of Islam: Perspectives on a Resurgent Civilization (University Press of Florida, 2000).…